The government’s pledge to reduce plastic waste is a step in the right direction – but it’s equally vital to protect our natural resources such as bees, says Professor Simon Potts, co-chair of a UN group working to  safeguard the world’s pollinators, in a new post for The Conversation.

Bee on a flower.
Image by madprime licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The UK government’s pledge “to make ours the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it” is laudable, but it will require much more than the clean up operation on plastics that has dominated headlines.

Prime Minister Teresa May launched the 25 Year Environment Plan on January 11 by pledging to cut needless plastic waste by 2042. But, while reducing human-made waste is a must, protecting and sustaining natural resources is equally vital.

The full report sets out several ways in which the government believes this can be done, many of which look very sensible. However, crucial to the plan’s success will be getting the public on board and helping them imagine how the choices we make now will shape the UK in the decades to come.

Just how would Britain look if it was to become fully sustainable by growing much more of its own food? Or if action was taken to boost biodiversity in natural areas? How can the UK adapt its farming sector to buffer against the impacts of climate change and turbulent international markets?

Choices made today will matter in future

A new project I am involved in aims to answer these questions by mapping for the first time the future scenarios that could transpire, depending on policy choices around pollinators like bees and hoverflies. Most UK crop pollination is delivered by wild insects, with some help from honeybees, and the economic value of these services is the best part of a billion pounds each year. What happens to these creatures will have a huge impact on the wider environment – after all, about three quarters of food benefits from insect pollination, including most of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in our diets.

Building these scenarios will allow us to explore alternative futures and help people visualise in fine detail how environmental decisions would manifest themselves and physically shape the landscape. We plan to use virtual reality technology to allow people to “walk around” in the future landscapes that would result from their policy preferences.

Proactively encouraging biodiversity will safeguard, and may even increase, the variety of food that could be grown in the UK. Conversely, a landscape dedicated to producing all the food needed to support a large human population would come at the expense of loss of wildlife, including pollinators, which could therefore limit the crops that could be grown to those that do not rely on insect pollination, such as wheat or maize. Every policy choice will have a physical impact on the future landscape.

Changing landscapes

Many of the UK’s landscapes have already changed forever due to developments such as intensive farming. Only 2% of wildflower meadows from the 1950s remain today, and numbers of many wild pollinating insects – which can contribute millions of pounds annually to the British crop output – have severely declined.

These are all part of the UK’s “natural capital” – the stock of natural assets that provide people with a huge range of benefits that underpin the economy and society. Many of these can be easily overlooked, and yet are having a bigger impact on the environment than plastic waste and other more visible and apparent examples of suffering.

As co-chair of a UN group working to safeguard the world’s pollinators I am part of a team of scientists who have published recommendations on how to tackle their decline and ensure these helpful creatures can support sustainable food production. The project, funded under the UK’s Global Food Security programme, aims to increase resilience and sustainability of the food system.

The government has put forward a bold and internationally-leading vision. What’s urgently needed now are concrete actions based on the best available science. The evidence from our project will help guide policymakers and farmers in managing the countryside to protect pollinator natural capital now and for future generations.

This post was originally published on The Conversation, 15 January 2018.

Professor Simon Potts is Director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading. In December he hosted a meeting of a UN group of scientists working to protect the world’s pollinators, at which the greatest threats they face were identified and prioritised for research.